Porter, Jane (DNB00)
|←Porter, James (1753-1798)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 46
PORTER, JANE (1776–1850), novelist, was sister of Anna Maria Porter [q. v.] and of Sir Robert Ker Porter [q. v.] Their mother, left a widow in 1779, removed with her children from Durham to Edinburgh. The little girls were sent to a school there kept by George Fulton. Their progress was rapid. Walter Scott, then a boy, was a frequent visitor at their house, and he and a poor woman of unusual intelligence, named Luckie Forbes, delighted them with fairy tales or stories of the borders. Jane's love of study often led her to rise at 4 a.m., and, while still a girl, she read the ‘Faerie Queene,’ Sidney's ‘Arcadia,’ and many tales of chivalry. Northcote made a sketch of her, her sister, and brother Robert, while children, reading and drawing in a Gothic chamber (cf. Gent. Mag. No. 102, pt. ii. p. 578). In 1797 she and Anna Maria aided Thomas Frognall Dibdin in the conduct of a short-lived periodical called ‘The Quiz.’
Before 1803 the family removed to London, where they occupied a house, 16 Great Newport Street, once tenanted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. They came to know, through their brother Robert, the artists West, Flaxman, and Northcote, Hannah More, and Mrs. Barbauld, besides many naval and military veterans, friends of their father. In London Jane wrote her first romance, an exciting but carefully written story of a Polish exile, ‘Thaddeus of Warsaw.’ In it she incorporated some reminiscences of the early struggles of John Sell Cotman [q. v.], to whom her brother Robert had introduced her (Roget, ‘Old Water-colour’ Society, i. 101), and free use was made of the characters of others of their friends. When the manuscript was shown to an old acquaintance, Owen Rees (of the firm of Longman & Co.), he at once offered to publish it. It appeared in four volumes in 1803, with a dedication to Sir Sidney Smith, and had a rapid success. While it was winning its reputation, Jane Porter and her sister were invited to visit the eccentric John James Hamilton, first marquis of Abercorn; and, when Jane replied that she could not afford the expense of travelling, a cheque was sent. Although Miss Porter was of prepossessing appearance, Lord Abercorn had anticipated greater personal charms in his visitors, and being disappointed by a secret view he took of them on their arrival, he ungallantly left his wife to receive them without his aid (Taylor, Haydon, iii. 17–18). Maginn considered ‘Thaddeus’ the best and most enduring of Miss Porter's works. By 1810 it had reached a ninth edition. Translated into German, it fell into the hands of Kosciusko, the Polish patriot, who sent Miss Porter expressions of approval. A relative of Kosciusko presented her with a gold ring containing the general's portrait; and the tenth edition, 1819, was inscribed to his memory. In recognition of her literary power Miss Porter was made a lady of the chapter of St. Joachim by the king of Würtemberg. Later editions appeared in 1831 (with a new and valuable preface), 1840, 1860, and 1868.
Jane Porter's second and most notable novel, ‘The Scottish Chiefs,’ was composed within a year, and was published in five volumes in 1810. Its subject is the fortunes of William Wallace, the Scottish patriot, of whom she had heard stories in her childhood from Luckie Forbes. In preparing the romance she sought information in all directions. The old poem on the subject, by Henry the Minstrel (Blind Harry), was doubtless known to her. Campbell the poet sent her a sketch of Wallace's life, and recommended books for her to read. Miss Porter dedicated to him the third edition (1816). He first met her in 1833, and spoke of her as ‘a pleasing woman’ (Beattie, Life of Campbell, iii. 146). ‘The Scottish Chiefs’ had an immense success in Scotland. Translated into German and Russian, it won European fame, was proscribed by Napoleon (postscript to 3rd edit. 1816), and penetrated to India. Maginn considered the hero, Wallace, ‘a sort of sentimental dandy who faints upon occasion, and is revived by lavender-water, and throughout the book is tenderly in love;’ but Miss Mitford, who commended Miss Porter's ‘brilliant colouring,’ declared that she scarcely knew ‘one héros de roman whom it is possible to admire, except Wallace’ in Miss Porter's story (L'Estrange, Life of Miss Mitford, i. 217). Joanna Baillie acknowledged her indebtedness to Miss Porter, ‘the able and popular writer,’ when writing her poem on Wallace in ‘Metrical Legends’ (1821), and quoted in a note a passage of ‘terrific sublimity’ from ‘The Scottish Chiefs.’ The tradition that Scott acknowledged in conversation with George IV that this book was the begetter of the Waverley novels must be regarded as apocryphal. The book has retained its popularity (it was reprinted nine times between 1816 and 1882), and is one of the few historical novels prior to ‘Waverley’ that have lived.
In 1815 appeared, in three volumes, ‘The Pastor's Fireside,’ a novel dealing with the later Stuarts; a second edition was published in 1817, and later ones in 1832 (2 vols.), 1856, and 1880.
Miss Porter now turned to the stage and wrote a play, ‘Egmont, or the Eve of St. Alyne.’ It was submitted to Kean, who praised it, but his fellow-actors thought less well of it; and it seems never to have been either acted or printed. On 5 Feb. 1819 a tragedy by her called ‘Switzerland’ was acted at Drury Lane with Kean in the principal, and Henry Kemble in a subordinate, part. It was so heartily condemned that the manager had to come forward and announce its withdrawal (Blackwood's Mag. iv. 714; Genest, Hist. of the Stage, viii. 683). ‘Miss Porter is sick too,’ wrote Miss Mitford on 5 July 1820, ‘of her condemned play. I have not much pity for her. Her disease is wounded vanity.’ Macready mentions a new tragedy in which Kean played at Drury Lane on 28 Jan. 1822, ‘Owen, Prince of Powys,’ ‘written, I believe, by Miss Jane Porter—a sad failure’ (Reminiscences, i. 233).
Through Dr. Adam Clarke [q. v.], the king's librarian, who was among Miss Porter's acquaintances, George IV suggested the subject of her next work, ‘Duke Christian of Luneburg, or Traditions of the Harz.’ Clarke supplied Miss Porter with authorities; it was published in three volumes in 1824, and dedicated to the king, who expressed satisfaction with it.
In 1831 was published, in three volumes, ‘Sir Edward Seaward's Narrative of his Shipwreck and consequent Discovery of certain Islands in the Caribbean Sea: with a detail of many extraordinary and highly interesting Events of his Life from 1733 to 1749 as written in his own Diary, edited by Jane Porter.’ The book made a great sensation, but is doubtless largely, if not wholly, fictitious. Miss Porter asserted that the diary was genuine, and had been placed in her hands by the writer's family (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. v. 10, 185, 352). When pressed on the matter, she said, ‘Sir Walter Scott had his great secret: I must be allowed to keep my little one.’ In the preface to the edition of 1841 she refers to a report of the Royal Geographical Society to prove that the islands were not imaginary. Many accepted her statements literally (cf. Hall, Retrospect of a Long Life). But the ‘Quarterly’ (No. 48, pp. 501 et seq.), while commending the literary ability of the work, characterised it as unmingled fiction. According to an inscription in Bristol Cathedral to the memory of her eldest brother, Dr. William Ogilvie Porter, he was the real author; but the inscription, doubtless written by Jane, is not to be wholly trusted (Notes and Queries, ib.) The book was reissued in 1832, 1852, 1856, 1878, 1879, and 1883.
After the publication of ‘Thaddeus’ in 1803, and until her mother's death on 21 June 1831, Miss Porter resided chiefly at Thames Ditton and Esher in Surrey. In May 1812 Crabb Robinson met her, noted her fine figure and interesting face, and was pleased by her conversation (Diary, i. 200, 201). In March 1832 she and her sister settled in London, frequently visiting Bristol, where their eldest brother, William Ogilvie Porter, was in medical practice. While living in London, Miss Porter went much into society, and met or corresponded with most of the literary and artistic celebrities of her day. Maginn notes her fondness for evening parties, ‘where she generally contrives to be seen patronising some sucking lion or lioness.’ In 1835 Lady Morgan met her at Lady Stepney's, and describes her as ‘tall, lank, lean, and lackadaisical … and an air of a regular Melpomene’ (Memoirs, ii. 396). In the same year N. P. Willis visited Kenilworth in Miss Porter's company, and wrote to Miss Mitford of ‘her tall and striking figure, her noble face … still possessing the remains of uncommon beauty’ (L'Estrange, Friendships of M. R. Mitford, i. 295). In 1842 Miss Porter went to St. Petersburg to visit her brother Robert, who died suddenly very shortly after her arrival. She returned to London, and the business of her brother's estate, of which she was executrix, occupied her until 1844. Judging from unpublished diaries, she seems to have suffered great pecuniary difficulty. At the beginning of 1842, however, she received from Mr. Virtue 210l. for ‘The Scottish Chiefs,’ and in November 1842 50l. was granted to her from the Literary Fund. Her books had a wide circulation in America. In 1844 a number of authors, publishers, and booksellers of the United States sent her a rosewood armchair, as a token of their admiration (Gent. Mag. 1845, i. 173).
She retained her intellectual faculties and serene disposition, and died on 24 May 1850 at the house of her eldest brother, Dr. Porter, in Portland Square, Bristol. In the cathedral is a tablet to her memory, and to that of her brothers and sister.
Jane Porter, like her sister, regarded her work very seriously, and believed the exercise of her literary gifts to be a religious duty. She was of somewhat sombre temperament, and S. C. Hall called her ‘Il Penseroso.’ She was generally admitted to be very handsome. Miss Mitford considered her the only literary lady she had seen who was not fit ‘for a scarecrow’ (L'Estrange, Life of Miss Mitford, ii. 152). A fine portrait of her as a canoness was painted by Harlowe, and was engraved by Thomson; it is reproduced in Jerdan's ‘National Portrait Gallery’ (vol. v.). Another portrait by the same painter and the same engraver appears in Burke's ‘Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Females’ (ii. 71). West painted her as Jephthah's daughter in a picture that was at Frogmore in 1834. Maclise drew her in outline for ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ and she there appears among Regina's maids of honour, stirring a cup of coffee (cf. Maclise, Portrait Gallery, p. 355). Dibdin mentions a portrait by Kearsley (Reminiscences, pt. i. p. 175). In an altar-piece presented by R. K. Porter to St. John's College, Cambridge, Jane is painted as Faith. Besides the works noticed, Miss Porter published ‘Sketch of the Campaign of Count A. Suwarrow Ryminski,’ 1804, and a preface to ‘Young Hearts, by a Recluse,’ 1834. She also took part with her sister Anna Maria in ‘Tales round a Winter Hearth,’ 2 vols., 1826, and ‘The Field of Forty Footsteps,’ 3 vols., 1828, and contributed to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ Mr. S. C. Hall's ‘Amulet,’ and other periodicals. Several unpublished works by both the sisters were sold in 1852, and cannot now be traced.
[No satisfactory biography of Jane Porter exists. Brief accounts occur in Elwood's Literary Ladies of England, vol. ii.; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit. ii. 1645; Hall's Book of Memories. The Ker Porter Correspondence, sold by Sotheby in 1852 (cf. Catalogue in the British Museum), contained materials for a biography, and was purchased by Sir Thomas Phillipps of Middle Hill.]